Ethnic Conflicts and the Problem of Resolution in Contemporary Africa: A Case for African Options and Alternatives 

Emeka E. A. Obioha 
Dept. of Sociology, Faculty of the Social Sciences 
University of Ibadan, Nigeria

In the last few decades most African nation-states have been going through difficult times of ethnic conflicts, violence and antagonism. These conflicts have been unable to be resolved through the long adopted western models and paradigms of conflict management. 
This paper is therefore designed as a response and contribution towards the on going debates and search for new ways to conflict management in Africa. The discussion focused on the examination of the contexts and dynamics of ethnic conflicts in Africa. Precisely, some of the forms, causes, and the underlying consequences of such with reference to some recent scenario in the continent was discussed. One of the major issues pointed out is how imperialism and colonialism impacted on ethnicity and ethnic conflicts which are traceable to the colonial masters systems of administration, arbitrary delimitation and partitioning the continent. 
This paper also borders on how persistent these conflicts have been and how the various western models and paradigms of conflict management have failed on the altar of peace deliberations due to their inadequacy to fit in properly into the Africa context. In conclusion, African traditional alternatives to conflict resolution were suggested for adoption in the next millennium. 

In the past few decades or nearly half of a century, African societies and the emergent nation states have been undergoing difficult times in terms of ethnic conflicts and antagonisms. This is not to say that conflicts did not exist prior to this period. The history and oral tradition of most African societies contain elements of conflicts and ethnic conflicts, and intra ethnic conflict situations. 
The problem at present in the contemporary African societies is the rage and magnitude of these ethnic problems. Ethnic conflicts have taken different shapes and dimensions which vary from those of the pre-colonial period. Most African scholars have argued that in as much as ethnic conflicts in Africa preceded the advent of colonial masters, the problem was indeed exacerbated and effected by the colonial administrative machinery in their colonies. Investigation into forms and causes of these conflicts in the contemporary Africa are of significance for a proper management of the situation. What is being suggested now is not total eradication of the problem which seems impossible, rather a better option to be adopted remains the answer to the problem. This becomes the case because the existing ways and means of handling the ethnic conflicts in Africa have not yielded much sustaining results. Against this background, it is evident that there has been a persistence of ethnic conflicts culminating to destruction of lives, property and traditional authorities and institutions in Africa. 
A cursory look reveals that over 2/3 of the emergent African nation-states have undergone or are undergoing serious ethnic conflicts. With reference to the work or Ikeazor (1996) Nigeria, Congo, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Ghana, South Africa, Rwanda, to mention but a few among others have been reduced to theatres of conflicts and ethnic struggles. These struggles may not have a decisive end if nothing urgent is done to save the ugly situation. 
 In light of the preceding positions, this paper examines the forms, causes consequences and the management or resolution strategies of ethnic conflicts in contemporary African societies. Which will purposively highlight on the inadequacies of the management strategies in place and the suggestion of African alternatives in such situations. 

Forms and nature of ethnic conflicts in contemporary Africa 
There are varieties of ethnic conflicts in the present African nation-states or societies. Conflicts are either jawjaw (war of words) or war war. It begins from the point of simple disagreement to a point where open violence becomes inevitable and a continuous hostile environment is perpetuated (Osaghae 1993). On a similar note, ethnic conflicts can be classified in a number of ways. There may be a distinction between public realm ethnicity which involves conflicts related to the determination of who gets what, when and how, and private realm ethnicity that may not invite state intervention (Osaghae 1994). In relation to the above what obtains most in Africa is public realm ethnicity. This may be partly because of the limited development of the private sector in most African societies, though ethnicity in the two realms is recursive (Rahushka and Sheplse. 1972). 
Another dimension in the classification of ethnic conflicts in Africa apart from the population descriptive analysis above is the degree of manifestation. On this note, ethnic conflict may be latent or manifest. The latent forms are those that are non-violent per se. Even though they may be destructive in nature or lead to sporadic violence, they are indeed grievances and underground vexations. This may be similar to what is regarded as cold war in the international political arena. In this situation there are inherent hatred among ethnic groups and enclaves. Osaghae (1994) posits that ethnic conflicts are not always violent. More usual or "normal" conflicts are non-violent and occur as part of normal life. In most cases, they are underground or latent and may not be obvious to the observer. We may refer to non-violent ethnic conflicts as civil, ethnic conflict which can take the form of competitive party politics, judicial redress, media protests, and in some cases peaceful demonstrations. On the opposite side of this case is the manifest or violent conflicts which represent only one extreme of a continuum. It is when channels of expression are closed or government fails to respond or responds negatively that conflicts can take violent forms (Osaghae 1994). 
The forms and nature of ethnic conflicts described above are interestingly what can be categorized as interethnic conflicts. Not withstanding the degree of manifestation, or whether people that are involved are private or public realm, the underlying factor is their bearings on inter ethnicity. This brings the focus of this paper to the issue of interethnic violence in Africa. In fact the history and picture of ethnic conflicts in Africa that has been popularized is one of ethnic groups tearing themselves apart and failing to reach agreement on fundamental matters. The inter ethnic violence which Agyeman (1992) term "ethnic genocidal wars that continue to erupt over land and other matters of purely local nature in Zagon Kataf / Hausa conflict Tiv / jukun conflict, and lbo / Annang conflict in Nigeria, Konkomba / Narumba conflict and Nawauri / Gonga conflict in Ghana and Topose and Dongiro (Southern Sudanese groups) Kokuro Mayatta conflict in Kenya have been cited as classical cases of ethnic violence. On the other hand, civil wars in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Somalia, Chad, Angola, Rwanda, Sudan and Mozambique indicate the ethnic scourge perspectives (Osaghae, 1994). 
There are also instances of intraethnic violence in Africa, such among the Modakeke / Ife in Nigeria to mention but one example. It is note worthy that intra ethnic conflicts wherever they occur may be violent but not exactly comparable to what obtains in the interethnic conflicts. One of the reasons behind this may be presence of ethnic consciousness and binding factors which are almost nonexistence outside a particular ethnic enclave. 
 Ethnic conflicts can also be classified or categorized on the basis of their pervasiveness or regularity and intensity. In this regard, among African nation-states the degree, intensity and frequency of occurrence of ethnic conflict varies. For instance, the problem of ethnicity and the antecedent problems is more evident in Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda and Sudan than it is in Benin, Zimbabwe and Tanzania (Osaghae 1994). Lately, ethnic conflicts are on the increase in Rwanda, Liberia, Sierraleone, South Africa, Mozambique, Zaire (Congo Democratic Republic) and Burundi. Having discussed the forms and nature of ethnic conflicts in Africa, it is important also to examine the underlying factors or causes of these conflict situations. 

Causes and the underlying factors of ethnic conflicts en Africa 
As the problem of ethnic conflict in Africa is real and wide spread, there is a need to examine from an anthropological cum historical perspective what might have been responsible for the occurrence of these conflicts. Ethnic conflicts may be a product of several factors among which is the structural ethnic consciousness, colonial factors and unhealthy competitions. Among these factors, colonialism is seen as the cardinal and pivotal context which gave rise to other issues that precipitated ethnic rivalries and conflict situations in Africa. 
Consciousness of ones ethnic origin or background is a psycho-sociological reality that is largely universal in nature. Ethnic consciousness may be described as that subconscious or conscious identification with ones ethnic background. Such identification may sometimes be unobtrusive, subtle, and largely unnoticed by others. On the other hand, it may be obtrusive and crudely insensitive. Ethnic consciousness amongst people can be found in many multicultural societies in varying degrees, in conflict or coexistence with other forms of consciousness such as class, religious or national consciousness (Ikeazor 1996). From this point of view, a high degree of ethnic consciousness or unguarded ethnic consciousness can result to ethnic tension and conflict where two opposing view converge. There are more of ideological framework towards ethnic rivalry and conflict situation. Depending on the direction of consciousness, national consciousness may be a strong factor towards nation building. On the negative aspect which we are more concerned about, ethnic consciousness may entirely be divisive, and of parochial form. These undesirable forms of consciousness have, particularly in their unfettered forms, plunged many nations into quagmires of blood letting strife and instability. Ethnic consciousness also known as tribalism in some forms in Nigeria in its extreme level reduced Uganda from one of Africa's most promising countries to one of the poorest. It is the same form of consciousness among some South African blacks that is putting their country's post apartheid future in jeopardy. In 1994 about five hundred thousand Rwandans women, children, men, old and young died, butchered by their countrymen consumed by the most bitter ethnic prejudice (Ikeazor 1996). The ingredients of ethnic consciousness have been negatively harnessed by the African emergent unpatriotic leaders who usually bank on ethnic sentiments and arguments for their selfish ends. 
 Ethnic consciousness provides African leaders with platforms for their ideological and morally deficient political positions. The ruling class in order to sustain their position confuse their various peoples with conflict generating theories and explanations in the face of social and political questions facing them. Ethnic conflict in some cases have been generated as a result of this singular factor. In Nigeria for instance, the episode in the fifties during the first republic at the Western House of Assembly, which denied the Easterner non-Yoruba member from becoming the first Premier of Western region culminated in an enduring ethnic conflict among the two major conflict groups involved and the consequent ethnic group that had the fattest blow. Although, as earlier mentioned these conflicts are not necessarily violent, rather they are latent and underground in nature. 
Apart from the ethnic consciousness which is more of an ideological framework or background to ethnic conflicts in Africa, there is the issue of colonialism, and westernization contexts and situations that gave rise to and even promoted ethnic rivalry and conflict in Africa. These include the political structure, economic and social transformation of the traditional societies to nation-states. They are mostly the artificial creations of the colonial masters in their bid to capture Africa's sense of unity. 
In the first place, colonial administration in Nigeria created interlocking conflicts situation through their pattern of administration. For Osaghae (1994) conflicts in Africa are both inevitable and expected. This is not because Africa is the bedrock of conflicts, but because of its peculiar recent history. From the pre-colonial period through the colonial and post-colonial periods, Africa has been the centre of all kinds of conflicts. These conflicts have had to do, not simply with interests that are fleeting or permanent, or more entrenched than those anywhere else, but interests that have had the ring of continuity in the midst of changes across the ages and across the periods of African history. What we have today is a manifestation of a historical evolution that has made conflicts, inevitable and crisis the major feature of African situation. If we periscope the facts from the present, it would probably be true to say that what we are witnessing in Africa today, whether in Liberia or Somalia, in Rwanda or South Africa or even in Nigeria, is actually manifestation of the enormous contradictions that exist on the African continent". African states are artificial creations and to a large extent opposite to the organismic theory of state creation. The various organized and functioning nations were brought together differently, diversified as they were before the colonial experience by the grace of colonial forces which destroyed the traditional African political systems. Ordinarily, when people with different historical experiences, diverse cultures, varying economic conditions and political systems are brought together, conflict is inevitable among them. This case is evident in almost all African nation-states. 
Secondly, the colonial creation did not just end with the act of state creation and imposition of values on the existing societies. The colonial masters went ahead to manipulate, playing one group against the other in order to promote mutual antagonisms among African peoples. It could be true to say that some of the manifested conflicts that we have in Africa today actually date back to the beginning or the colonial divide and rule policies. In Nigeria, for instance, Lord Lugard's colonial administration created and made use of docile rulers where they were in existence and the warrant chiefs where there are no substantive central political system such as among the Ibo's or the South Eastern Nigeria. 
From the historical evidence, the colonial masters to a great extent contributed immensely to what we experience as incessant ethnic conflicts in most parts of Northern Nigeria. There, during colonialism the Hausa / Fulani Emirs were imposed on the non-Hausa Fulani ethnic nations. The leaders of these nonHausa / Fulani groups were made to suffer tremendously for any act of disobedience to the artificially instituted authorities. It is the nostalgia of these incidences that provided the easy ground for the Zangokataf / Hausa conflict in 1992. Similarly the use of ethnicity by the British colonial authorities in their divide and rule methods left a number of undesirable legacies for the newly independent Nigeria in 1960. 
Today, not many Nigerians will be aware that the colonial authorities introduced segregated quarters known as Sabon Gari and Tudan Wada in several Northern. Nigeria cities for "stranger" coming to settle from the south and other parts of Nigeria and the indigenes respectively (Ikeazor 1996). The segregated quarters policy was one of many divisive plots hatched by the colonial authorities that preferred not to foster close communal relations between the various communities and ethnic groups of their Nigerian colony. Nnoli (1989) dealt with this question extensively with particular reference to one interethnic riot instigated in the Northern Nigeria by the colonial officials in Jos Plateau. 
Another fundamental or root issue in ethnic conflict in Africa is the multiethnic factor. Like ethnic consciousness, multi-ethnicity is a natural context within which most African nation-states found themselves. Although, the two related conditions have been grossly exploited and abused by the colonial masters and the African nationalist leaders for their selfish interest. This situation usually result to manifest conflictual condition where one or a few groups dominate as in Nigerian case. In this case, the ethnic game is mainly played among the majority groups afflicted by a majority domination complex, while the minorities have to endlessly fight for fair treatment (Osaghae 1994). In Nigeria where a recent estimate has put the number of ethnic groups at 374 (Otite, 1990), the Hausa / Fulani, Yoruba and Ibo are the fronfline ethnic actors, In Ghana with no iess than 30 groups, the Akan and Eve have been the major contestants for power, and in post 1980 Liberia, the Krahn and Mano / Gio battled out of other 16 groups. 
The ethnic consciousness, colonial administration and multi-ethnicity have been identified and discussed as the major root contexts of ethnic conflicts in African nation-states. Other factors that can be considered as immediate and very important factors include related social conflicts, the character of ethnic demands and interest articulation; the extent and legitimacy of ethnicity and quality of management; the balance between economic and political control; the degree of decentralization of government, structure, competition for scarce resources, competition for state power, minority nationalism and cultural superiority and imposition (Osaghae 1994). 
Some conflicts in Africa today have been attributed to deep ethnic demand and interest articulation. These demands when foreclosed by an authoritarian government usually give rise to violent conflicts. This was the case in Liberia, Ethiopia, Chad, Sudan and Rwanda. Even where the channels of ethnic struggle and articulation are legitimate and open, mismanagement of the ethnicity variables may equally lead to conflict situations. For instance where the ruling class pays lip service to ethnic demand other than those by their own ethnic groups, as Doe did in Liberia, ethnic conflicts are likely to exceed normal limits (Osaghae 1994). 
Control of economic and political power is yet another source of incessant conflicts among ethnic groups in emergent African nation-states. Precisely the proportion of which groups that produce the national wealth have access to political power or excluded from it may account for ethnic conflicts in the nation. Usually, where the wealth producing ethnic groups feel cheated or marginalized in the scheme of things, in extreme cases, it may lead to separatist tendencies. 
Similar to the above factor is the degree and centralization or decentralization and government structures and powers. While Barongo (1989) in his comparative study in the Nigeria and Uganda situation concluded that ethnic conflicts tend to be higher and more severe under a centralized administration, Wunsch and Olowu, (1990) on the other hand discovered that decentralization does better than centralization of power. From this notes, fear of domination of one ethnic group by another or others may lead to serious resistance moves if under centralized government. In the Nigerian case, fear of ethnic domination led to some serious ethnic conflicts among the Ibo and Hausa ethnic groups in the mid 1960s. Specifically, the introduction of the unitary system of government and the abolishing of regional structures by the Aguiyi Ironsi administration brought about fear of domination among the Hausas who resorted to violence and ethnic struggle against the Ibos. 
In the economic sense, resources are descriptively scarce in relation to demand. Relatively, competition for scarce resources may be considered as one of the patent sources of ethnic conflicts in Africa. This is perhaps the most popular explanation for ethnic conflicts worldwide (Osagha 1994). As Nelson and Wolpe (1970) pointed out, in the context of Africa, the integration of different groups through colonialism into a peripheral capitalist formation brought new and competitive notions of development, and heightened existing conflicts and produced new ones among groups. 
 In this regard, competition for public jobs, admission into schools, distribution of state resources among others constitute a source of conflict. 
 Similar to the issue of competition for scarce resources is the share of power. The state in Africa is neither neutral nor an arbitrator, it is itself a focal point of competition and an actor in conflict as Rupesinghe (1989) opined which many scholars believe also Bates, (1981) Chazan (1983) Rothchild and Olurunsola (1983) and Wunsch (1990) who concluded that ethnic conflict can be seen to be produced more by the (state's) threatening actions regarding the various communities which sustain peoples' lives than by any intrinsic hostility among African peoples. In Nigeria, Sudan and Liberia for instance, the ethnicization of state power led to civil war (Osaghae 1994). 
In recent time, the question of ethnic minority right, have been bothering most African states. This issue in many states has led to violent conflicts at the extreme case. Practically in African states, with very few exceptions, the minorities are usually marginalized and oppressed which is a constant source of their opposition to dominant group. The minority nationalism may be in form of resistance against the imposition of a dominant language as a lingua franca or ques for equitable distribution of resources which are derived from their own territory as it s the case in Nigeria. Minority ethnic groups usually from the southern part of Nigeria have in recent time in the democratic transition asserted their right to the presidency. Their grievances have been that they are marginalized irrespective of the fact that they produce the of the country's oil wealth. 
From the foregoing position, it is deducible that ethnic conflict is usually instigated by both remote or what can be referred to as root factors and the immediate contexts. Usually any pronounced conflict situation would have taken a course or more of the kinds already discussed. 

Consequences of ethnic conflicts in Africa 
Whatever the underlying factors or the precipitating contexts of ethnic conflicts in Africa nation-states, there are bound to be consequences which are usually negative and retrogressive to the country's survival. 
One of the prominent outcomes of ethnic struggle and conflict in African has been civil war or violence. Many countries in Africa have been dragged into the theatre of wars in this case. For instance, in 1967, Africa most populous nation Nigeria after a years orgy of ethnic conflict and violence descended into a full scale civil war. At the end of the Nigeria civil war 1970, over a million lay dead, bombed, shot or starved to death. The Congolese civil war which broke out shortly before Nigeria had reduced the country to shamble and left it with one of the vile dictatorships the continent had known by the time it was over. Evidence of civil wars and bloody genocide are still in countries like Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Burundi to mention but a few. In Rwanda, half a million to a million people were slaughtered in a matter of months in middle of 1994. "Their crime was that they come from the wrong ethnic group" (Ikeazor, 1996). This made Ikeazor to conclude that the underlying theme in most of the conflicts in Africa is ethnic division or ethnicity. Within the context of civil wars which is the most pronounced outcome of ethnic conflicts, other factors or contexts have specifically been linked to ethnic conflicts. These include economic, political and social predicaments. 
Economically, civil wars resulting from ethnic tensions and conflicts usually plunge nations and countries into economic mess. Ordinarily during civil wars and violence, property which is highly valued is destroyed. Houses are burnt, and some economic resources vandalized. Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone and other countries that witnessed civil strife will attest to this fact. Various economic operations usually get to a halt, for instance, during the Liberia civil war, their economic production stopped. Ethnic violence in Nigeria currently in the Niger Delta area has partially paralyzed economic exploration of crude oil in that zone. The ethnic tension between the ljaws, the Itshekiris, and the Urhobos has seriously affected the business of oil companies located in that area. In the process, economic setbacks are usually experienced. The intra-ethnic strife in Ogoni land resulted in the loss of life of a notable contributor in African literature Ken Saro Wiwa. The Liberian conflict led to far reaching death consequences on the people. West Africa (1993) showed bones and remains of killed civilian plantation workers in Liberia. The conflict also had other consequences on soldiers, children and civilians. Other social consequences of ethnic conflict include lack of trust and prejudice among citizenry. These are few among the various consequences of ethnic conflict situations in Africa. 

Ethnic conflict intervention strategies in Africa 
Due to the consequences of ethnic conflicts it has became an issue of serious attention among African nation-states particularly on how best to resolve the conflicts. Presently, African nation-states have devised various means of attending to ethnic conflicts in their various domains. The issue still remains that these means do not resolve conflicts rather they assist in managing the situation. Hence, it is important to examine some of the conflict management strategies adopted in African states. These include, the constitutional means, granting of local autonomy, inter-ethnic linkage, economic deregulation and welfare programmes in Nigeria as a case in point. 
Inter ethnic linkages have been adopted in order to foster better relationships among people from different ethnic groups. In Nigeria for instance several policies have been initiated since independence in 1960. The unity schools were established to cater for students from all parts of the federation. In 1973, the General Gowon regime also introduced the National Youth Service Corps Programme. Similar programmes were introduced in Kenya and Zimbabwe among other African countries. 
In view of the incessant ethnic tension and fear of domination, the federal government of Nigeria devised a means of coping with the situation through creation of local government areas with degrees of autonomy conferred on them. Local autonomy thus induces a sense of self-government and reduces fear of domination. This is in the same direction of Barongo (1989) in advocating decentralization as a strategy of ethnic conflict management. Most Africa countries have introduced one form of decentralization to local government or the other but the problem Osaghae (1994) indicated the unwillingness of the central government to let local localities become independent. Although, the degree of autonomy is an integral part of the constitutional provisions or the country. Yet there are constitutional provisions which tend to deal with the management of ethnic conflicts as the case may be in African countries since their constitutional development. 
The constitutional provisions include, the fundamental human rights which, to a great extent, are universal. As part of the management strategies, it is believed that the guarantee of human rights is a prerequisite for ethnic management, although practice has shown that this guarantee is not sufficient (Osaghae 1994). For instance as Osaghae pointed out, the notion of group rights struggle featured prominently in the transition to the third republic in Nigeria especially on the part of minorities groups who argued that it is the only way by which their marginalization can be overcome. Other issues that are part of the constitutional provision include, the federal character principle, the zoning or rotational formula for sharing of political and economic power. In view of this, constitutional sociologists argued trial a constitution is a deliberate solution to problems elicited by the society (Livingstone 1952; 1956). Contrary to this position, Slabbert and Welsh, (1979) posited that constitutions are not sufficient conditions for regulation of conflict. They have to be complemented and underpinned by a surge of other formal and informal devices and institutions that focus directly on the conflict. Invariably, the existing conflict resolution mechanism are westernized and un-indigeneous. At the extreme, armed conflicts and violence are managed through arms. The instance of Liberia, and other African countries come to mind. In these countries, the various ethnic conflicts situations have been suppressed by armed strategies. But the problem is that these strategies are temporary and not enduring enough to resolve the existing conflicts situations in African countries. Hence, ethnic conflicts persist with an unforeseeable end. The question then is what are the various conflict resolution strategies existing in African societies which have been jettisoned for the formal western alternatives since colonialism? 
The informal systems or ethnic conflict resolution are indeed what should be the major focus on the African nation-states in resolving ethnic differences. These informal systems in African context way involve mobilization of local efforts believed to be an effective and right approach to ethnic conflict situations, Edevbie (1999). The council of elders and joint community delegations which are part of African culture is simply adequate in our present dispensation and predicament. These means are not really constitutional, that is written down in the country's constitution, nevertheless, they may be practically effective. Non-constitutional solutions as Diof (1990) argued are usually pragmatic, expedient solutions which by their nature may be difficult to institutionalize. 

In the present dispensation of ethnic conflicts in African nation-states, the western, formal system of conflict management have not really saved the situation. In instances where they have been applied, they have only acted as management rather that means of resolving the conflicts. The search for an enduring resolution mechanism is still relevant. Although, through the existing literatures and observation, there are traditional, informal systems that have not yet been utilized and the present scenario. There is then an urgent need to revitalize those existing systems for a more functional and responsive society. It is therefore believed that scholars in African issues and Africanists should concentrate on finding solutions to African ethnic crisis within (culture) rather than embracing the western paradigms that are practically non-functional to the African situation. This conference is therefore left with the deliberations on these strategies in developing consultation with the indigenous institutions. 


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© The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author
and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNESCO.

© Les idées et opinions exprimées dans cette article sont celles de l'auteur
et n’engagent pas la responsabilité de l´UNESCO. 

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